October 1956 | Volume 7, Issue 6
Dashing fighter, daring scout, this romantic trooper played a large part in Washington’s triumph at Yorktown
Captain Allan McLane rode out before dawn of June 16, 1778, to keep a dangerous rendezvous. With his cavalry he had been probing the British perimeter around Philadelphia, trying to learn for General Washington at Valley Forge whether the enemy was about to evacuate the city. The previous day a young girl had slipped through the British lines and had told McLane that her father would bring him “important intelligence” between daybreak and sunrise on the sixteenth. They were to meet at the “Horse House” near the Rising Sun Tavern in the countryside north of Germantown.
McLane, whose daring sorties and hairbreadth escapes had made him one of the most romantic figures in the Continental Army, rode to the appointment fully aware that it might be a carefully baited British trap. And so he took precautions. He ordered his entire troop to follow at a distance and to conceal themselves behind the tavern. He placed two vedettes on the lane leading past the tavern between the Old York and Frankfort roads, with orders to fire their pistols at the first sign of the enemy. Then he rode on alone.
A furtive-acting man was waiting just inside the yard gate. McLane had hardly begun talking to him when a patrol of thirteen British light horse rode up quietly from the south, circled a small hill that concealed their movements, and then came forward at full gallop.
McLane’s informant promptly fled, but the Captain, leaping to horse, charged directly at the gate toward which the British were riding. The leading British trooper had dismounted and was opening the gate when McLane’s horse reared above him and McLane, leaning down, fired his pistol into the man’s startled face.
“At the instant the Capt. fired his pistol,” McLane later wrote, speaking of himself in the third person as was his wont, “the [American] horsemen appeared in the Enemy’s rear, fired and advanced upon them. They became alarmed and ran in Grate Confusion down the roade and through the fields toward the British picket near the Globe Mill. They reported (a lie, British-like) they had been ambuscaded by a body of horse and infantry and cut their way through them without a loss but one dragoon wounded slightly.”
McLane did not say how he could possibly know what story the British dragoons told their superiors. But it was typical of the man that there was no slightest doubt in his mind they had told “a lie, British-like.”
Ever a good hater, McLane was an emotional patriot. This fervor was both his weakness and his strength. It made him a stormy petrel whom superiors could not always placate, but the same quality, in the field, resulted in such dash and daring that Washington once remarked to a friend: “I would not do without him in the light corps—no, not for a thousand pounds.”
McLane was born in Philadelphia on August 8, 1746. His parents were persons of some affluence, for McLane visited Europe when he was 21, and his father, when he died in 1775, left McLane more than $15,000 worth of property in Philadelphia.
When he was 23, McLane married Rebecca Wells, the daughter of the sheriff of Kent County, Delaware. He settled in Delaware, got into one of the first skirmishes of the war against Lord Dunmore in Virginia and then joined a Delaware regiment of volunteers. In the disaster on Long Island, he first proved his quality, reversing the trend of the day in his immediate sector by cutting off a British lieutenant and eighteen privates and slashing his way out with his prisoners.
He fought at White Plains and Trenton and Princeton. On the latter field lie was so conspicuous he attracted Washington’s attention and promptly was promoted to captain in a commission dated January. 13, 1777. Assigned at first to Colonel John Patton’s regiment of loot, he was soon detached and sent to Delaware to raise a company. He returned with 91 men enlisted at his own expense, “every shilling of the bounty money being drawn from his own pocket.”
With a command of his own, McLane was ready to gallop into history. He was in the forefront of the fighting at Brandy-wine: he drove in the first British pickets in Washington’s abortive counterattack at Germantown. Then, with the capital. Philadelphia, in the hands of the enemy, he became, in the harsh winter of Valley Forge, the eves and ears and virtually the sole commissariat of Washington’s starving army.
He was ordered on November 7, 1777, to take “the post most advantageous for watching the enemy, sending out the necessary parties and patriots for that end You are to prevent as far as possible all intercourse between Philadelphia and the country, suffering none to go to the city without papers given by the authority of the commander-in-chief.”
Never were orders more expeditiously executed. Within a month, by a romantic episode in espionage, McLane foiled British plans to surprise Washington, encamped in a threatening position at Whitemarsh, north of Philadelphia.
On Second Street in Philadelphia, directly opposite the headquarters of Sir William Howe, the British commander, there lived a Quaker couple. William and Lydia Darrah. Howe’s adjutant general had his quarters there: on December 2, 1777, he advised Lydia to send all her family to bed early.
The Quaker matron complied, but her curiosity had been aroused. And so when Howe’s officers gathered, she slipped off her shoes, tiptoed to the door of their room, and listened at the keyhole long enough to learn that they were discussing plans for a surprise attack on Washington at Whitemarsh.
The next morning, determined to get word to the patriots, Lydia crossed the street to Howe’s headquarters and requested a pass to go to a miller at Frankfort to obtain flour. With the pass, she went through the British lines, left her bag to be filled at the mill, and then hurried northward, met McLane and delivered her warning.
Lydia then returned to the mill, paid for her bag of flour, and re-entered the city, unsuspected. McLane alerted Washington and intensified his patrols. At midnight on December 4, Howe moved to the attack, with virtually his entire army strung out in two long columns on the Manatawny and Skippack roads. McLane, with a hundred hard-riding horsemen, charged upon the head of the second column as it reached Three Mile Run. The shock of the surprise attack threw the British into contusion. The advance was halted, the line dressed for battle. When the British again probed slowly forward, McLane laded away into the night, but time and again he returned to stab at their front and Hank.
When Howe reached Chestnut Hill, he found the American army drawn up for battle three miles away. For two days the armies sat looking at each other. Then, on December 7, Howe tried his favorite tactic, a night pincer movement against the American right and left flanks.
Both thrusts scored initial successes. On the left, a fierce attack directed by Howe himself dislodged a regiment of Pennsylvania militia and another of Continentals. General Joseph Reed, stationed as an observer here, had his horse shot from under him at the first fire and was pinned to the ground. British infantry rushed forward to bayonet him where he lay when out of the night came the thunder of hoofs, and Allan McLane swirled upon the scene with his hard-riding troopers, sabering British right and left and rescuing the General.
This action terminated the futile battle of White-marsh. Howe retired for a gay winter of drinking and wenching in Philadelphia, while Washington drew back to Valley Forge. From this camp that became a symbol of suffering and fortitude, a friend wrote McLane on February 15, 1778: “I have often inquired amongst your company how they were treated, and they have no complaints, but that of being naked, which must be endured as it is a general Calamity.”
To clothe his men. McLane had his wife Rebecca rip up her white linen tablecloths for breeches. Clad thus in white linen, beaver hats, and rough hunting shirts, lacking greatcoats and boots, McLane’s tatterdemalion troopers scourged the countryside, swooping down on British foraging parties and diverting the supplies they had gathered to the impoverished camp at Valley Forge. In one far-ranging expedition into Delaware and the Eastern Shore of Maryland. McLane rounded up, as he later wrote, “1500 fat hogs, 500 head of cattle. 200 head of Horses—for the army at Valley Forge.”
With spring, the question of Howe’s next move became paramount, and McLane prowled incessantly through the countryside just beyond the British lines. He had many spies in the city. as Valley Forge correspondence attests, and he was instrumental in foiling the last pet scheme of the departing Howe.
The British commander had just been crawling into bed with the dawn of May 19 when aides brought him word that the Marquis de Lafayette, with 2,200 Continentals, was sitting out in an exposed position at Barren Hill, only eleven miles from Philadelphia, with a force too small for battle, too large for scouting. Howe vowed he would have “the boy,” as he called Lafayette, as a prisoner within 48 hours.
Again, as at VVhitemarsh, Howe moved out with more than 7,000 troops, virtually his entire army. His force left Philadelphia at 10:30 on the night of May 19, but McLane, with his cavalry raiders and Oneida Indian allies, was on patrol. At Three Mile Run, he left out the massive movement, sensed its objective, and rode off at a breakneck pace to warn Lafayette.
He reached Lafayette just at daybreak. Already, so swiftly had the British moved, Lafayette seemingly was cut off from his only escape route, Matson’s Ford over the Schuylkill River. The head of one British column was close to the lord when Lafayette, making a brave show of attacking, threw forward a menacing contingent. The British halted and formed for battle. While they did, Lafayette peeled off his companies one by one and sent them clown the steep slope of the hill behind him to a hidden road along the river. Along this they raced to the ford unperceived by the British, and when the jaws of the trap closed. British troops came face to face with each other in an empty camp. Lafayette had made his escape.
Nothing could keep McLane from the forward lines. The British obviously were preparing to abandon Philadelphia, and McLane could hardly wait for them to leave. He was scouting with his light horse across the Schuylkill at daybreak June 18 when George Roberts, one of his contacts, crossed by the Middle Ferry with the information the British were leaving. With his glasses, as day brightened. McLane could see the last of Clinton’s army being ferried across the Delaware to the Jersey shore.
Having sent Roberts on to Valley Forge, McLane led his ,troopers into the city. They galloped with drawn swords along Second Street, and captured two groups of British laggards, all without the loss of a man. Then McLane scribbled a hasty note to Washington. Washington appended to a letter he was writing to the president of Congress this hurried postscript: “A letter from Captain McLane, dated in Philadelphia, this minute came to hand confirming the evacuation.”
Command in the recaptured American capital had been entrusted to Benedict Arnold, the wounded hero of Saratoga. The precise nature of McLane’s relations with Arnold is not clear, but one thing is certain: McLane became one of the very first to suspect Arnold’s loyalty.
The venality of Arnold’s nature became apparent in shameless profiteering from the sale of goods left behind by British occupation forces. This aroused the ire of many Philadelphians—and especially of Mclane. In a letter to Washington, he complained of Arnold’s activities and hinted at darker suspicions. Washington’s reply was prompt and crushing. He refused to entertain doubts about the loyalty of one of his greatest generals, and his stinging rebuke silenced McLane.
McLane gave vent to his secret feelings in scribbled notations. One of these notes indicates that Arnold recognized how dangerous McLane might be to him and would have taken steps to crush the meddlesome cavalryman it Washington himself hadn’t intervened. McLane wrote: “After Arnold married Miss Shippen [on April 8, 1779] he opened a correspondence with the Enemy in New York and M’Lane was suspected for having the Clue—Genl Washington protected him or he would have been abused for having done his duty.”
While Arnold was left free to plot, events moved swiftly for McLane. He was attached to the command of Major Henry (Light-Horse Harry) Lee. and early summer of 1779 found him scouting Stony Point, a rocky promontory in the Hudson that the British had seized and were fortifying heavily. On June 28. Washington wrote General Anthony (Mad Anthony) Wayne suggesting that he try to get a “trustworthy and intelligent” man into the British works to spy out their strength. Allan McLane was picked for the mission.
He decided to go in openly under a flag of truce, but disguised as quite another type of man than he actually was. In the neighboring countryside, he located a Mrs. Smith who wished to visit her sons in the British garrison. Dressing himself in rough backwoods attire —frayed hunting shirt and leggings, his powder horn and rifle accoutrements plainly visible—McLane escorted Mrs. Smith into the British lines and then lounged about waiting for her, impersonating a bumpkin commanding militia.
A young British officer decided he would have some fun with this hick soldier. The story, complete with dialogue, was obtained by Alexander Garden, a fellow officer in Lee’s legion, from McLane himself.
“Well, Captain,” the British officer asked, “what do you think of our fortress? Is it strong enough to keep Mister Washington out?”
“I know nothing of these matters,” McLane protested. “I am but a woodsman and can only use my rifle, but I guess the General—General, mind you, not Mister—would be likely to think a bit before he would run his head against such works as these. … Trust me, we are not such dolts as to attempt impossibilities.”
Leaving the British officer puffed up with superiority, McLane quitted the fort and reported that it wasn’t half as formidable as it looked. His keen eyes had noted that entrenchments connecting the batteries hadn’t been completed, and he had worked out an approach route by which an attacking force might come quite close without being observed. McLane’s report brought Washington to the scene for a personal reconnaissance, protected by the cavalry of McLane and Lee. The attack was set for the night of July 15-16, 1779, and McLane and his raiders lay close in the underbrush, snuggled almost up to the unsuspecting British sentries, as Mad Anthony Wayne’s troops stormed the fort with the bayonet. In 25 minutes they had carried the Gibraltar of the Hudson.
Stony Point was still the talk of the hour when McLane and Lee teamed up in an almost identical venture against Paulus Hook, or Powles Hook as it was sometimes called, a fortified neck of land in what is now Jersey City. McLane’s troop, forever on the move, ranged the entire west bank of the Hudson from Stony Point to Paulus Hook, and finally, from a deserter, McLane obtained precise information about the plan of the fort and the strength of the garrison. Lee badgered Washington and finally obtained permission to storm it.
The attack was made early on the morning of August 19, 1779. Part of Lee’s force became lost and never did show up, but the rest went in with the bayonet, carried the fort in a few minutes, and made off with 158 prisoners. Lee himself commanded on the left, where McLane’s dismounted troopers, led by their captain, were the first to crash the defenses.
Paulus Hook made a national hero of Lee, just as Stony Point had of Mad Anthony Wayne. The Continental Congress showered decorations and rewards on Light-Horse Harry, but in one of those whimsies that defy the rationalization of even a politician, it refused to pass a resolution praising McLane and the other officers who had been so prominent in the assault.
This may have been one of the factors in the rift that now developed between McLane and Lee. Their personalities, in any event, seemed fated eventually to clash. Years later, reading Lee’s account in his memoirs of how he had paced the Hudson’s banks on a cold wintry night waiting for a spy’s report from New York, McLane remarked sarcastically in his journal that Lee never kept the field in such weather; he preferred playing whist.
Eventually Lee, commanding his augmented legion and on his way to fight in South Carolina, got McLane out of his sight by assigning him the menial task of purchasing supplies in Maryland. McLane appealed to Washington, with a result which he recorded in a triumphant note on a letter dated January 20, 1781. “McLane got out of Major Lee’s trap by prevailing on Washington to assign him to Baron Steuben’s command,” McLane wrote.
Steuben was then in Virginia trying to cope with an invasion the British had launched from the sea under Benedict Arnold in the first days of January. McLane’s assignment to Steuben’s command led directly to his most important and most forgotten service.
During winter and early spring, the situation in Virginia built to a crisis. The British reinforced Arnold’s original raiders, and up from the south came Lord Cornwallis, who had lost the Carolinas by decimating his army to win the Pyrrhic victory of Guilford Court House. Steuben and Lafayette, who had been sent to Virginia by Washington, could not hope to do battle with such an army, but at the same time the British faced a potential danger; they were isolated in the middle of the Atlantic seaboard, cut off from all support except by sea. Strategically, this was the situation that was to make Yorktown possible.
In the north, Washington appeared preoccupied with plans for an attack on New York, hoping to end the war at one stroke. His apparent absorption in this project deceived the British and apparently has deceived most historians since. Lossing says that the Comte de Grasse, commanding a powerful French fleet, had notified Washington he intended to campaign in the West Indies but later changed his mind and decided to sail for the Chesapeake.
An intriguing mystery seems obvious here. Why would De Grasse in the West Indies, intending to attack the British there, suddenly change all his plans? And if he were coming to the American coast, wouldn’t logic dictate that he sail for Newport, where a French army and fleet were already stationed? Why would he, out of the blue as it were, decide on the Chesapeake? Obviously, it would seem that he must have been stimulated in some unexplained fashion to arrive at this all-important decision.
The answer to the riddle is to be found in the McLane papers, which reveal that the seed of decision was planted by Allan McLane, acting as special courier from Washington. This is McLane’s abbreviated account of his dramatic mission: “In the interval between the appearance of Cornwallis in Virginia and the month of June, 1781, McLane embarked in the ship Congress ,, of Philadelphia, Capt. Geddis, as Capt. of Marines. … Visited Cape Francois in July, was examined by Count de Grasse in Council of War on board Ville de Paris , gave it as his decided opinion that Count de Grasse could make it easy for Genl. Washington to reduce the British in the South if he proceeded with his fleet and Army to the Chesapeake.”
This secret mission which became lost in history does not rest on McLane’s unsupported word. In 1820, when he was contemplating writing his memoirs, McLane obtained a corroborating affidavit from Richard O’Brien, a lieutenant on the Congress . In this, O’Brien says he personally commanded the ship’s boat that rowed McLane to the council of war, and he adds:
“I was on the quarter deck of the Ville de Paris and after considerable time had elapsed one of the French officers—the Captain of a 74, one of the Council of War—informed me that, in Consequence of the dispatches delivered to the Council of War by Col. Allan McLane, his clear and explicit statements and rational views of the probable Consequences, it was then determined to abandon the Expedition against the West India Islands and to sail with all Expedition for the Coast of the United States.”
Having obtained De Grasse’s pledge to sail for the Chesapeake, McLane returned to the Congress for the voyage home, and before he landed, such was the destiny of the man, he became embroiled in one of the fiercest sea battles of the Revolution. McLane underplays the event in one laconic sentence in his journal in which he notes that the Congress fell in with the British sloop of war Savage off Charleston Bar—and took her.
Actually, the action was a desperate one, raging from 10:30 A.M. to 2:45 P.M. before the Savage surrendered. It was one of the rare instances in which a privateer stood up successfully to a ship of the Royal Navy. The Congress was more powerful, mounting 24 guns to the Savage ’s 16, but what impressed the British skipper even more than the weight of her great guns was the deadliness of her small arms fire. McLane, as a captain of marines, was directing this, and even when the ships drifted into positions where the carriage guns would not bear, “musquetry and pistols still did execution,” the British captain later reported. Finally, with the Savage ’s rigging cut to pieces, her quarter-deck and forecastle swept clear of men, the British skipper struck his colors.
Delayed by this battle and the Congress ” privateering cruise, McLane didn’t get back to the war on land until September, when he found Washington’s troops moving south for the encirclement at Yorktown. He promptly joined them and fought until Cornwallis capitulated. Shortly afterwards, McLane retired from the army, noting in his journal that he had “Received nothing but abuses and Insults from the people then in power as a reward for his sacrifices and faithful services from 1775.”
War’s end found McLane with his once comfortable patrimony swallowed up by debts he had incurred in the patriot cause. He engaged in a trading venture with Robert Morris on the Delaware and in 1797 became collector for the port of Wilmington, a post he retained until his death on May 29, 1829. During his long and ever-active life, he held many public positions, and in the War of 1812 he had command of the defenses of Wilmington. In 1814, when the British captured Washington, McLane was on the scene as an observer. Then 68 and unequal to such feats as he had performed in the winter of Valley Forge, his spirit was still as fierce, as unconquerable—and as critical—as ever. In a sulfurous memorandum the old war horse passed this judgment on the capital’s defenders:
“All was confusion—nothing like spirit—nothing like subordination—universal complaint for want of food, the Militia going off in every direction to seek it. … I most religiously believe, that if I had been at the head of 300 men, such as I led in the attack on Paulus Hook … I should have defeated Genl Ross, when he pressed Genl Winder over the Eastern Branch.” The words of an old fighter to whom the past is even more glorious in recollection than it was in deed? One cannot know, but can only be sure that, to Allan McLane, all things were possible.